‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing book coverA beautiful, amazing and altogether wonderful book is the Man Booker shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien [London: Granta, 2016] which (with all due respect to the judges) would have been my choice for the 2016 prize.

A multi-layered, multi-voiced story that moves around in time from the Communist victory in the late 1940s right up to the present day, the middle of 2016. The novel follows the various and varied experiences of an extended Chinese family whose members are all damaged, many wounded and some even killed by the vicissitudes of the colossal mismanagement of the Chinese economy and people over that time. Yet, the prose is often lyrical, which matches the underlying theme of talented Chinese musicians, Sparrow the composer, Ai-ming and Zhuli the violinists and Jiang Kai the pianist, all students at the Shanghai Conservatory. But how are they to reconcile their musical taste and talent with the cloth-eared cadres who try to implement the crazed thoughts of Chairman Mao?

The story is begun in Canada by Jiang Li-ling (English name now Marie Jiang) as she recounts how:

In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. That year, 1989, my mother flew to Hong Kong and laid my father to rest in a cemetery near the Chinese border. Afterwards, distraught, she rushed home to Vancouver where I had been alone. I was ten years old.


That year, as few if any need telling, was when the young people of China sought to persuade the Communist Party that it was time to try democracy. They took over Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing and demanded dialogue with Comrade Deng Xiaoping. His eventual response was to send in fresh troops, who had not been in the Square to hear and empathise with the students, and a squadron of tanks.   The world’s press were there for the impending visit of Mikhael Gorbachov and the rest of the world was able to see the disaster unfold live on television. The chapters building up to that dreadful climax reveal the personal details of many individuals caught up in the tragedy; individuals many of whose lives had already been marred and scarred by years of dogmatic enforcement of truly bad government decisions.

In its wide spectrum of knowledge and its depth of artistic understanding, the quality of the writing calls to mind A S Byatt. One chapter reminded this reader of W G Sebald with its use of some black and white photographs. The whole broad sweep of the book puts it up there with novels of record like ‘Love on the Dole’ (Walter Greenwood) and even George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’. However, this is not a European but a Chinese book. In the early chapters, and here and there through the text, Chinese characters and concepts are illustrated, translated and transliterated complete with accents to show the tones. Mandarin scholars will gain added pleasure from this. Traditional Chinese instruments are played and the earlier Chinese form of musical notation which few can read is used by Sparrow as a coded way to notate Western music of which the authorities disapprove. Chinese names, like Da Shan and Fei Xiong become even more human in their translations as Big Mountain and Flying Bear.

The vast size of China, about one and quarter times the size of Australia, adds poignancy to the banishment of city dwellers to its remote deserts or the Deep South. Some of the family members spend decades in exile.   Sparrow, a teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory, is reassigned to a factory building radio sets. There seems no logic to it all. And yet the author takes this kaleidoscope and cleverly shakes the pieces into a beautiful, satisfying and comprehensible pattern. A noble work and Must Read.

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